The Hidden Meaning Behind Hack-a-Dwight


Photo Credit: Joeri Poesen via Flickr

On Friday, the Houston Rockets were running circles around the Dallas Mavericks in the many ways they are wont to do: wonky dribble-drive penetration, inside-out pick-and-roll plays and sharpshooting from beyond the arc. That is, until the third quarter, when Dallas employed the infamous — and a smidge counterproductive —  hack-a-Dwight strategy.

One fateful 1997 evening against the Chicago Bulls, Don Nelson gave birth to this strategy when his Mavericks purposefully sent Dennis Rodman to the line six times. Since then, it’s become common NBA folklore that subjection to intentional fouls should engender embarrassment. On first glance, it makes sense: how could a professional basketball player be so bad at shooting flat-footed shots from fifteen feet out that the other team would happily give him that choice? They’re called free throws, after all.

However, when teams implement hack-a-Dwight (or hack-a-DeAndre, or hack-a-Drummond, or what have you), they’re really communicating two things:

1. We don’t think we can win unless your coach benches you, so that’s become our strategy for winning; a strategy we so believe in that we’ll thin out our bench and force ourselves into the bonus for it.

2. We’re so certain we can’t defend your team when you’re on the court, in fact, that we’d rather concede an expected field goal percent of 57.5 percent (Dwight’s free throw percentage). That’s 1.154 points per possession or an offensive efficiency rating of about 115.4— a full five points higher than last year’s league leading Miami Heat.

It’s not a defensive strategy— it’s a defeatist strategy.  In one way, fouling says “we think you’re a bad free throw shooter.” In another, it’s saying “I can’t defend you.” And when Russell Westbrook is hammered for driving the lane with reckless abandonment, it’s a reasonable admission. Even the NBA’s staunchest competitors won’t think twice sending explosive slashers to the line— they are, indeed, impossible to guard. But to foul Dwight Howard as he runs across the half court line is a crippling declaration. It takes guts for a group of NBA players to say, “we don’t even know what you or your team are about to do, but we sure as hell don’t want to find out.” More importantly, it takes a player with gravitas to elicit such vulnerability.

When it does work, it’s usually by fluke or the result of successful head games, ones that should be supplanted once the true nature of fouling is considered: If the hallmark of superiority in the NBA is an admission of greatness, Hack-a-Dwight should trigger confidence, not self-doubt.

Rather than approach your fate with indignation, Dwight Howard, head towards the stripe oozing of pride. You’re unstoppable. It may not feel like it but your challengers, the worlds most hyper-competitive athletes, willfully admit to it every time they send you to the line.

Statistical support for this story provided by NBA.com’s Stats tool.

Seerat Sohi

Seerat Sohi (@DamianTrillard) watches NBA basketball from the confines in her home in Edmonton, a small town on the outskirts of Siberia, because the idea of running around on ice always made her feel nervous. She oscillates between loving and hating the Bulls, depending on the amount of minutes Jimmy Butler plays on a given day. She also writes for Clipperblog (www.clipperblog.com) and Rufus On Fire (www.rufusonfire.com). Her request for the domain name DidSeeratSohiSleepLastNight.com was recently rejected, but that won't deter any future attempts.

  • Kirk Henderson

    The overarching point of this article is true. But the Mavs threw a wrench at the Rockets in the 2nd quarter by going zone. The zone+no ball movement from Houston, Dallas cut the lead in half from 22 at the 6:30 mark to 11 by half time. Dallas couldn’t make a dent in the 3rd, and went to Hack-A-Dwight to try to get some momentum.

    Which, as you state above, was (and is) defeatest and stupid. It eventually blew up in the face of the mavericks, when Dwight finally made 3 out of four.

    • Seerat Sohi

      Thanks for the comment. I meant to comment on that but then cut it out of the final draft. I agree— the zone was working masterfully because for some reason, the Rockets stopped shooting corner threes (very unRockety, I know). Once they got back into that, the Mavs went straight into desperation mode

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  • tom

    A simple point per possession analysis isn’t the right way to look at the situation. Now it might be still true that Hack a Blank is counter productive but you also want to look at the way it extends games in terms of possessions and alters variance, as teams that are behind have different goals in those areas than teams that are ahead.

  • Cigamodnalro

    I think there are two prevailing rationales for the Hack-a-* strategy, neither of which was touched on here. The first and most poignant rationale is that making a bad free throw shooter take a steady stream of free throws absolutely kills momentum. Basketball is a game of momentum, and when one team seems to be pulling away, sending its worst shooter to the line not only slows down the game (every bit as effectively as taking a timeout, for example, would), but shows the better team that they’re still going to miss some shots. The second rationale is derivative of the first – free throw shooting, itself, is a game of confidence in execution. Put Dwight or Drummond on the line, and you’re telling him, “We don’t think you can make two in a row. We think there’s a decent chance you’re going to miss both. Prove us wrong.” Mentally tough players seize the opportunity, but that’s why coaches don’t tend to put mentally tough players on the line. Dwight Howard hit 21/39 free throws in a game vs. Orlando last year, and that was hailed as a victory. Hack-a-Dwight has, in previous contests, produced less favorable results for whichever team Dwight was suiting up for. So if the -Magic- -Lakers- Rockets are pulling away from you, why not slow things down, make them miss, and put on your best Matt Geiger face? It may blow up in your face, but odds are things were blowing up in your face anyway.

  • RG

    Also, the tactic can be used to extend the game (in the same way that the last 30 seconds of all college games last for an hour). When you’re down by 10 points with just over 2 minutes left, you can use the hack-a-shaq to squeeze a couple more possessions in there by not letting the team that’s ahead run the entire 24 off the clock.

    Also, I think this strategy has worked at times and has resulted being pulled off the court. It may be defeatist or desperate most of the time, but to sluff off the successes as “flukes” is pretty lazy. I guess I was hoping for a little more depth to the discussion of this strategy, but maybe that’s not what the author was going for.

    • Seerat Sohi

      Thanks for the comment. I’ve gotten some responses on this so I should have clarified — I didn’t mean hack-a-Dwight or other players would be ineffective in the fourth quarter of a close game. Stopping the clock in a situation like that is invaluable, it easily tips the scales in favor of implementing the strategy.

      Rather, I meant it’s more unsuccessful when the game is in quarter’s 1-3. Every extra possession the player is on the floor is either A) another foul the other team gives up and B) adding to the amount of fouls/wasted defensive possessions so long as the coach doesn’t take said player out. What I’m trying to say is it’s only effective because the player/coach lets it be. It either messes around with the players’ confidence, or the confidence of the coach and that’s usually what causes uncharacteristic misses/players being pulled. Let’s say a coach doesn’t play into this strategy. The opposing team is forced to stop at some point, either they give up or start using too many valuable fouls. Sorry if I’m rambling. It’s a defeatist strategy in quarter’s 1-3, a necessary survival tactic at the end of the fourth.

  • It is not always the player that is being fouled that the other team is afraid of. If you have a great shooter get hot, what is the best way to stop his shooting. Foul the poor free throw shooter on the team and keep the ball out of the hot shooter’s hand as much as possible. The secret to it’s working is recognizing when it is working. Pop is a master of knowing when to use the hack strategy. And anyone who objects to it is hypocritical. What they should actually be objecting to is a pro player who is being payed millions of dollars not being able to make their free throws.

  • Amy

    but if you foul, you dont lose up to 24 seconds on the clock, which is beneficial if you’re down by a good amount

  • al_frick

    FT% x FT% Team’s FG%
    If the left side of the equation is greater, you should not hack. If the right side of the equation is greater, you should hack. Take D Howard. 60% FT’s, Rockets 47% FG percentage.
    60% x 60% < 47%. Much less. Hack a Howard.
    If you hack him, the expected points that possession is 36% (60% x 60%) x 2 points = 0.72 points.
    If you allow the Rockets to shoot, the expected points that possession is 47% x 2 points = 0.94 points. Even higher because I'm not factoring in 3 pointers (35% x 3 = 1.05 points per possession).